I remember during my far and distant schooldays that our poor unfortunate teachers would often be driven to such distraction by their unruly pupils that they would exhort us to stop larking around. By this they meant playing around, acting the fool, doing anything other than what we were supposed to. The warning was usually enough to restore order. But where does lark come from?
As is often the case with etymological searches, there are a couple of contenders. The most obvious is the skylark, once a common sight and sound in the English countryside but now one that is pretty rare. I cannot recall the last time I heard one sing. On the ground they are not much to look at but once they are airborne, they soar and hover and treat us to a long, unbroken song which can last two or three minutes a time, delivered with a clear, distinctive warble.
So enchanting and distinctive was the lark’s song, that it inspired poets and composers to laud their praises, most notably Percy Bysshe Shelley in his To A Skylark and George Meredith’s wonderful The Lark Ascending from 1881, which formed the basis for Ralph Vaughan Williams’ composition of the same name. “He rises and begins to round,/ he drops the silver chain of sound,/ of many links without a break,/ in chirrup, whistle, slur and shake,/ for singing till his heaven fills,/ ‘tis love of earth that he instils.”
An exaltation of larks, the collective noun for larks which dates back to at least the 15th century, must have been a wondrous thing to hear and see.
So common a sight were they and so distinctive and playful was their behaviour that their name was used to describe children who played and scavenged around the banks of rivers, mudlarks, and slightly older youths who played around on the rigging of ships, skylarks. The Student’s Comprehensive Anglo-Bengali Dictionary of 1802 picked up the latter, defining skylarking as “the act of running about the rigging of a vessel in sport; frolicking.”
But there is an alternative derivation, from the northern English dialect word lake or laik, which first appeared in the early 14th century, meaning to play. It almost certainly owed its origin to the Old Norse word leika, which was used to describe play, as opposed to work. It was used in the English translation of 1350 of the French romance poem, Guillaume de Palerme; “he layked him long while to lesten at mere.”
In the 18th and 19th centuries it was used by the sporting fraternity such as jockeys and grooms, making an appearance in Francis Robinson’s A Glossary of Yorkshire Words and Phrases collected in Whitby and the Neighbourhood in 1835 as lairk. The conjecture is that the intrusive r is the work of southern Englishmen trying to make sense of the impenetrable Yorkshire accent.
The Lexicon Balatronicum; a dictionary of buckish slang, university wit and pickpocket eloquence of 1811 – if you are going to be dipped, it is as well that the thief be eloquent, I feel – defined lark as “a piece of merriment. People playing together jocosely.” Alas, it gives no clue as to whether it is derived from the bird or the Yorkshire dialect word.
What is clear, though, is that usage from then onwards associated lark with playfulness and frolicking. To prove that the transition of a noun into a verb is not a modern affectation, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Hawker wrote in his diary in 1813, “having larked all the way down the road” and by 1844 The Living Age, an American magazine, was describing a Mr Larkins as “eternally larking about somut or other.”
Although I am attracted to the skylark theory, I find it hard to ignore the dialect term, laik or lairk.